According to USA Today, the number of U.S. undergraduates studying abroad was almost 290,000 in 2014. In fact, approximately 9% of U.S. undergraduates study abroad at some point. Attending a foreign university can be a life-changing and valuable experience for a number of reasons, not the least of which include developing a better understanding of different cultures and improved communication skills.
Recognizing these and other benefits, numerous American presidents have promoted the value of foreign education exchange programs:
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower advised on January 27, 1958, that “the exchange of students should be greatly expanded. Information and education are powerful forces in support of peace. Just as war begins in the minds of men, so does peace.”
- More than 25 years later in May 1982, President Ronald Reagan said, “There is a flickering light in us all which can light the rest of our lives, elevating our ideals, deepening our tolerance, and sharpening our appetite for knowledge about the rest of the world. Educational and cultural exchanges provide a perfect opportunity for this spark to grow.”
- In a joint press conference with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on April 4, 1993, President Bill Clinton confirmed the importance of student exchange programs: “No one who has lived through the second half of the 20th century could possibly be blind to the enormous impact of exchange programs on the future of the countries.”
- President Barack Obama has announced two programs – “100,000 Strong” in 2010 and “100,000 Strong in the Americas” in 2011 – to bolster the number of U.S. students studying in China and Latin America, respectively. Speaking about the importance of studying abroad, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually making America stronger.”
Reasons to Study Abroad
1. Better Employment Opportunities
According to For Dummies, studying abroad enhances your chances for post-graduate employment because employers want “employees with an international knowledge base, as well as foreign language skills.” This finding was reinforced by other studies:
- A study published in Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad suggests that employers with international business place significant value on studying abroad – the longer, the better in programs that feature service learning or internships.
- The QS Global Employer Survey Report 2011 indicates that almost half of employers in the U.S. actively seek or value international study experience when recruiting.
- A 2012 survey by IES Abroad of recent graduates who had overseas study experience indicates that 89% got a job within six months of graduation, almost half while they were still in school – and earned $7,000 more on average in starting salaries. By contrast, only 49% of college graduates found jobs within a year.
Conversely, one study reported on by NAFSA found that very few employers specifically recruit candidates with an overseas educational experience unless cross-cultural skills are required. In other words, companies whose interest is limited to the geographical U.S. are less likely to appreciate the foreign experience. Choice of majors remains the single greatest determinant of employer interest.
2. Improved Graduate School Acceptance
Chuck Cohn, CEO of Varsity Tutors, claims that studying abroad may help gain graduate school admission: “Graduate schools seek well-rounded students who can compete in a globalized, ever-evolving market.”
However, it is not necessarily international experience alone that will set you apart, but the ability to reflect on your experience and how it can contribute to the graduate program. It also depends upon your field of study and the relevance of the foreign instruction to that field.
3. Increased Language Proficiency
Direct enrollment effectively immerses a student in the local culture and language in a sink-or-swim condition. Research by PLOS ONE indicates that teenagers and adults can become adept in a second language and that the best method of instruction is immersion, rather than implicit or classroom instruction.
While bilingualism can be a significant asset in a career, the cognitive benefits to the speaker – improved cognitive skills and brain functions, as well as protection against memory loss – are well known.
Factors to Consider – Direct Enrollment vs. Study Abroad Programs
Students seeking to broaden their knowledge and enhance their language skills can choose between a school-sponsored program (study abroad) or enrolling directly in a foreign host university. Factors to consider before selecting a program include the following.
1. Student Maturity
Students at the age of 18 or older are considered adults and will be subject to the same laws and expectations for adults in the host country. According to CNBC, Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors.com, warns, “If you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, college overseas is not where you go to find yourself.”
The behavior of students in study abroad programs is frequently crude and disrespectful. According to Tuscan Traveler, a staff member for a study abroad program in Italy confirms such behavior: “It’s impossible for the schools to keep these kids under control. It’s one thing when they are on a college campus doing damage, but the situation is far more serious when they are running wild in and devastating historic cities.” If a student doesn’t know that drinking is not an exercise to get drunk, he or she is not ready for an overseas experience.
U.S. college-affiliated study abroad programs are highly organized, and are most appropriate for students who might be leaving home or the United States for the first time. Classes are designed specifically for Americans with planned, guided excursions. As a consequence, students primarily interact with other Americans, rather than with the local populace.
According to Jillian Schedeneck, an American who participated in a school-affiliated program in Bath, England, “American programs are good at showing you the historical and cultural aspects of a foreign country from a distanced point of view.” Schedeneck notes that she had to make considerable efforts to meet and become friends with the actual British people.
In contrast, students who directly enroll in a foreign university are on their own with limitless opportunities to customize their foreign experience. The student chooses where he or she wants to live, eat, and travel. Classes are conducted in the native language of the country, and the majority of classmates are from the host country. Immersion in the culture is not optional, but the natural consequence of the experience.
3. Academic Qualifications
Like universities in the United States, the admission requirements for direct enrollment vary from country to country, school to school. For example, an American student applying to the University of Oxford for undergraduate studies must have a minimum combined SAT score of 2100 (1400 in critical reading and mathematics and also 700 in writing), and have scored a five on three or more advanced placement (AP) tests or have scored at least 700 on three appropriate SAT subject tests. The University of Bristol requires a minimum 3.0 GPA, an SAT score of 1830, and three SAT subject tests of at least 650.
By comparison, Harvard University requires an SAT score (the school does not publish its SAT minimums) and two SAT subject tests for admission.
4. Language Abilities
While the majority of college-sponsored study abroad programs are conducted in English, students who directly enroll in universities receive classroom instructions in the language of the country where the university is located. Classmates are regular university students native to the region.
According to Jason Rogers, a hockey player from Virginia and an alumnus of the Sorbonne, “You have to have a pretty good grasp of the language before studying abroad in order to attend classes in a foreign language. By forcing you to actually use the language you’re learning, immersion multiplies your gains.” If attending a school in a non-English speaking country, applicants are typically required to show proficiency in the regional language before acceptance.
5. School Rankings
Times Higher Education ranks 401 of the world’s universities by their teaching capabilities, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. It also ranks the Top 100 most powerful global university brands by reputation. 43 are located in the U.S., followed by 12 in the United Kingdom, 6 in Germany, and 5 each in Australia, France, and the Netherlands. 15 other countries throughout the world have one or two universities on the list.
Students selecting a study abroad program should check with their home university to find foreign partner schools. Students intending to enroll directly in a foreign school should review the curriculum of the school and confirm that credits earned will be accepted by the U.S. school if they intend to return to America prior to graduation.
According to a 2014 Forbes article, the average cost of a study abroad semester is $31,270 – and “fees only get higher when you tack on living expenses like sightseeing, dining and traveling to nearby countries.” However, many colleges and universities maintain cost parity with overseas schools, so tuition and fees are the same as the home campus in the U.S. Financial aid should be transferable as long the home college accepts the credit, according to Stacie N. Berdan, an international careers expert.
Of course, many international universities are tuition-free or charge fees well below their U.S. counterparts. According to The Washington Post, American students in Germany, Norway, Finland, France, Sweden, Slovenia, and Brazil pay little or no tuition, but are expected to cover all of their living costs (proof of their ability to cover living expenses may be required). As a consequence, enrolling directly in a foreign college may save students considerable money.
Commenting on an article in The New York Times, a father in New Jersey states, “Two of my sons are studying undergraduate college full time in Europe. I send them to the most expensive business school in Spain, and I’m still paying 50% to 60% less than the comparable school in the U.S. Including airfare!” While annual costs in the United Kingdom and the U.S. are comparable, an undergraduate degree requires only three years in the former, versus four years in the U.S.
The United States has the biggest gap of any industrialized nation between imports and exports, along with a national debt that threatens the continued stability of the country. The U.S. faces one of its biggest economic challenges since the Great Depression of the 1930s – companies are shifting their resources offshore to fast-growing markets like China, which, according to Bersin, is expected to have a larger middle-class than the U.S. within two years with a more competitive, younger, and dynamic labor force. Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, proclaims, “We have entered a global economy where talent and skills shortage challenge world economics and business growth around the world.”
America’s economic rivals understand the emphasis on a global market, spurred by trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. There are more than 1.1 million international students attending college or graduate classes in the U.S. with little or no accommodation in language or student life. As a result, if American workers are not learning constantly, hungry kids from an emerging market “will eat your lunch,” according to Angelina Clarke, an emerging markets expert from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
What do you think? Is foreign study a luxury or a necessity?